For five years running, the Cal Poly women’s basketball team had entered the Big West Conference Tournament as one of the top two seeds.
For most of those seasons, the bracket heavily favored both of those top positions, giving each of them a bye into the semifinals.
The Mustangs reached the tournament title game in four of those five years and made their NCAA Tournament debut in 2013.
Senior guard Ariana Elegado came back for a fifth year of eligibility this season largely to help Cal Poly make its second NCAA appearance.
But if the Mustangs (15-13, 10-6 Big West) are to do it again, they’ll have to win one extra game.
For the first time since 2009, third-seeded Cal Poly is not among the top two seeds, which means the Mustangs will have to win a quarterfinal game at seventh-seeded Cal State Fullerton (12-18) at 6 tonight to advance to the semifinals being held at Honda Center in Anaheim.
The road to a title will be tougher, but Cal Poly is focusing on the bright side. At least the Mustangs aren’t in the bottom four of the conference. Those teams played in first-round action Tuesday and will have to win four games in five days to win it all.
“We’re putting our players in a mental position that this is good thing,” Cal Poly head coach Faith Mimnaugh said. “It’s good to get going, it’s good to be a part of the tournament. It’s good to be second day so you don’t have four games in five days.
“It’s still really exciting for us to have earned at least one bye. We’ve been beaten before by teams that are in a similar position that we are in right now and kind of got some momentum coming into that semifinal game where we were stagnant for a couple days.”
Winning three consecutive games against conference opponents has proven elusive for the Mustangs so far this season. They’ve won two in a row four times during conference play, and their inconsistency has led to at least one loss to each of the bottom three Big West teams, including today’s opponent.
Some of that inconsistency was to be expected with Cal Poly’s influx of youth and inexperience into the regular lineup.
Elegado returned to join fellow seniors Kristen Ale and Taryn Garza, who was recently named the Big West Hustle Player of the Year, but the Mustangs had to replace three starters from last season’s team, pulling from a roster that includes seven freshmen and one junior college transfer.
With that in mind, Mimnaugh is still thankful the women’s tournament is not constructed like the men’s, even if her team fell out of the top two.
Any of the eight Big West men’s teams will have to win three games in three days to take the tournament title and the conference’s automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament.
Should the Cal Poly women win today’s game, however, the Mustangs will take Thursday off before Friday’s semifinal against second-seeded CSUN (21-9, 11-5).
The day off is “more important for us this year than maybe years past,” Mimnaugh said “because we have a very young squad. Just getting us some more reps to be able to go against Northridge, all those things can be beneficial to a group that doesn’t have the same number of reps that a senior-laden squad would have.”
Though the Mustangs did lose to both seventh-seeded Cal State Fullerton and eighth-seeded UC Irvine in a run where they lost four of their final seven, they also have reason to be confident.
Cal Poly is one of only two Big West teams to beat top-seeded regular-season conference champion Hawaii (22-7, 14-2 Big West) and owns a home-court victory over defending Big West Tournament champion CSUN. The Mustangs have also beaten fourth-seeded Long Beach State (22-8, 9-7 Big West) and swept fifth-seeded UC Davis (14-15).
“It helps you know you can do it,” Mimnaugh said. “You just have to put together two halves of great basketball. And that’s not always easy when your opponent puts together two great halves of basketball, but I sure like our chances when we’ve had some success in the past.”